California's term-limit law was turning Assembly speakers into ciphers--until Fabian Nunez came along.
When the new fiscal year began at the end of June, California had its first on-time budget in six years. That was a milestone. But another event that came with it may have represented an even bigger milestone: It was the collegial feeling between Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the two Democratic leaders of the legislature, Senate President Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. "The tone and tenor of Sacramento has changed entirely," Nunez declared. "And one can only credit the personalities here, the maturity that has been expressed by everybody, the fact that we realize we want this to be an honorable profession."
Most of all, however, one probably has to credit Nunez himself, who in just his second Assembly term is drawing comparisons with legendary Speaker Jesse Unruh, most crucially for his clear belief that the speakership is about forging alliances and getting things done. "Undoubtedly," says Tim Hodson, who directs the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University, "Nunez is the most successful speaker so far in this era of term limits."
You might call him the only successful speaker. There's a reason for that. Under California's draconian term-limit law, members can serve in the Assembly for just three two-year terms. The practice among the majority Democrats before Nunez's elevation in 2004 had been to choose speakers who were in the second of those three terms, giving them only a couple of years to master the position and try to put their stamp on legislative affairs. Hemmed in by the rules, they generally played second fiddle to the Senate president, the governor and Sacramento's legions of special-interest lobbyists.
With Nunez, who is 39, the pattern shifted. His colleagues chose him in the second year of his freshman term--in part based on his combative and self-assured personality--thereby giving him five years in which to learn the ins and outs of his leadership role.
Now, in the third year of his tenure, Nunez has gotten past a few early missteps, including some initial uncertainties as a parliamentarian and a tendency to monopolize the spotlight, and cemented his place in Sacramento's firmament of power. Earlier this year, he felt secure enough in his position to strip a committee chairmanship from a Democrat who had parted company with the majority caucus on a bond vote.
More important, though, Nunez is making it clear that when it comes to key questions in the Assembly, he is the man to see. On three controversial issues before the legislature--a measure to make it easier for telephone companies to sell cable television service; a bill to impose tighter restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases; and a move to hand governing authority over the Los Angeles public schools to the city's mayor, Nunez not only has plunged into the negotiations but has carried the bills himself. Like Unruh four decades before him, says Hodson, Nunez is becoming an insulator between his caucus and the various special interests that hold great legislative sway.